Tag Archives: baking

Excuse Me, It’s Baking Time

11 Aug

Apple & Oat Muffins

In the US, we get new seasons of “The Great British Bake Off” a long time after they air in Britain, which means a couple things:

  1. I spend weeks ignoring the “GBBO Bakers: Where are they now?” articles my British friend Angcha sends me because she’s already seen them.
  2. I have bursts of binge baking, which during summer is not the best idea.

The binge baking is good for my friends though–a few years ago for Christmas, I started giving friends empty mason jars. The deal is that I fill them with a recipe I’ve been wanting to try. They eat it and give it back. I refill them throughout the year–usually this is randomly, and sometimes I go for months without doing anything, but then Bake Off is on, and out come the baking tins and GBBO-related cookbooks. It’s a decent system though–the jar method of sharing certainly makes it easier on my waistline, and it’s fun to share the bakes.

Over the last few weeks I’ve made my first tart, done my first blind-bake of a pastry crust and made English muffins. Last night I did my first hot water crust and put together my first meat pie (we’ll find out tonight if it’s any good). Today I’m attempting meringue for the first time as well.

Some friends have asked if I’d ever want to be on a Bake-Off show, but honestly, I’d be petrified. I’ve been a “tried and true recipe” kind of baker. When I make cookies, it’s pretty much just chocolate chip. For bread, I stick to pretzel. For cake, I use the Boy’s vegan chocolate cake recipe, which is plenty tasty and gets around a lot of allergies. It’s not that I don’t mind trying new things–I ventured out into whoopie pies, for instance, but even then, I haven’t ventured into the pages of the whoopie pie cookbook I got as a gift. Yet.

While it’s easier to stay with the tried and true, sometimes they become tired and true (which, incidentally, is how I typed it at first). Sure, I know how to do them well, but it really is exciting to attempt a new recipe–which, even if it fails, is fun because then the challenge is figuring out where it went wrong and correcting those mistakes.

So, maybe I would do Bake-Off someday, given the chance. Just not today–I have a lot more to learn before I’d consider myself an all-around Star Baker. And that starts right now with Italian meringue.

This DIY Trick Can Suck It

30 Jun
Make your own powdered sugar!

What do you think? Can we make this work?

A few weeks ago, I had a little baking crisis. We were having people over to celebrate a friend’s birthday, and in the middle of making the cake (THE CAKE), I realized I didn’t have enough powdered sugar to make all of the frosting we’d need for it.

On top of this, it was a holiday weekend and the stores were full, and I’d pretty much promised the Boy, No, we really aren’t going to need to go to the store to pick up anything else. I’ve got it all under control.

Ha!

At the point I realized I needed more powdered sugar, the Boy asked, “Do you want me to go to the store and get some more?”

“Well, I don’t….no, it’ll be fine….we’ll just go with–wait! I can make some!”

Now, I’d read about making your own powdered sugar. It saves you so much money! It’s so quick to make! Why would anyone in their right mind buy powdered sugar when you can do it yourself?!

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes! It’s supposed to be easy!” And I scuttled around the kitchen to make this flash of genius happen.

The recipes I found do vary (some add corn starch to prevent clumping), but basically, you put a cup of regular sugar into a blender and blend it until it’s the fine consistency of powdered sugar. This is supposed to take all of 30 seconds. Here’s how it went down for me:

Blender - circa late 1990s. It still works!

Here’s the blender. This blender is likely at least 20 years old. We don’t use it much.

Blender -- Yes, you need to see this angle too!

In case you didn’t know, here’s the inside of a blender. I just thought I’d show you.

We're gonna make our own powdered sugar! This is gonna be great!

Put on your imagination caps here, readers. Pretend that I’m pouring some Sugar in the Raw into the blender. I forgot to document the entire process for you, as I was in kind of a rush that day, but as successful cooking blogs show, more pictures are necessary to guide your readers through every step of the process.

If you’re ready to say, “Jill! Sugar in the Raw?! That’s not going to work–the granules are too big!” I’d like to respond that according to the package, this Sugar in the Raw was “great for baking.” Why, then, wouldn’t it be just as great for making powdered sugar?

Not-so-powdered sugar

This is what it looked like when it was done. You’d think it’s fine, but then you taste-test it….

Not-so-powdered sugar is not going to make tasty frosting.

….and you discover that it’s really gritty and is nothing like the consistency of powdered sugar. It’s close though. So you put it back in the blender and keep blending until either your ears give out or you start to smell a smoking blender motor.

And yet, it doesn’t get finer.

Will this mock me from the pantry?

At some point, you say, “Fuck it! I’m done with this!” and you slap a lid onto the container of semi-powdered sugar and throw it into a cabinet because you just can’t bear to throw it out yet. It can either sit in the pantry and mock you, or perhaps on a different day, you’ll finish off the project.

At the first sign of swearing, the Boy hears his cue that it’s time to go to the store. In no time, he’s back with your true friend:

Real powdered sugar!

 

Which makes excellent frosting. And costs $1.89, which is close to what you’ve just spent on regular sugar, electricity to make the blender run, and soap and water to clean it. Plus I have enough leftover to use on another recipe.

This isn’t a DIY trick, my friends, it’s DIY trickery. Don’t believe the hype.

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What’s Your “Back in Time”?

7 Apr

My friend Angwa hipped me to this BBC show called “Back in Time for Dinner,” which I’ve turned into my lunchtime fun time for the week. Each one-hour episode has the five-member Robshaw family living through a different decade, from the 1950s to the 1990s. The first floor of their house is transformed into what a typical house of that decade would look like–kitchen, living room, dining room; they wear the clothes; they do the things; and they eat the food.

In the 1950s, this means that mom’s stuck in the kitchen all day doing amazing amounts of housework. There’s no fridge–you keep things cool on a slab of marble in the larder. The country still is rationing food, so there’s not much meat.

Throughout the years–and some decades have massive amounts of change in a very short time–we see the introduction of refrigerators, freezers, TVs and highly combustible chip pans. Fish sticks, ready meals and Rice Krispies vie for stomach space. Society changes, and therefore the family changes with it–things like women working and kids moving out of the house. World events like the 1970s energy crisis have a major impact on day-to-day life that many of us would find shocking.

It’s fascinating to see how society changed with regards to our food and how we make it, and how our living standards have changed. It got me thinking about what’s “back in time” for me–and what’s not.

For example, the Boy and I don’t have a microwave. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, this is an appliance that 90% of Americans have. I remember the magic of getting our first one when I was maybe 10. We could cook hot dogs in 45 seconds! We learned that you don’t nuke foil-wrapped burgers! We got yelled at if we stood in front of it while it was on!

But as an adult, I’ve never really cared about owning one. Last year, when our 16-year-old microwave–the one Ma Jaracz got me because she didn’t know how I was living without it–bit the dust, we decided not to replace it. Heating up leftovers is kind of a pain now, but we manage just fine doing whatever we did in the microwave by using the stove and oven–and have more counter space.

However, about three years ago, I joined the ranks of the 60% who have a dishwasher, and it’s  revolutionized my world. I grew up with a dishwasher, so spending most of my adult life without one was a big step back. Having one has completely changed how much time I spend washing dishes, which changes how much I’m willing to experiment with cooking and baking. If a recipe doesn’t work out, it’s not as miserable an experience to clean it up as when I had to spend an hour washing up the failure.

Even the food trends are interesting to think about–and how cyclical they can be. Consider popcorn. As a kid, it was a big deal to get an air popper. Then we graduated to microwave popcorn. Now I make it on the stove old-school style–but with my fancy popcorn pan.

We also have a lot more packaged food that makes life easier–but maybe isn’t really the best thing for you. When I was a kid, making a cake from scratch was the most difficult thing you, but the Boy’s chocolate cake recipe takes maybe five more minutes than a boxed cake mix. And it tastes much better.

But today we also have so many more global spices and flavors–and this has made our food so much more interesting and allows for a lot more variation and enjoyment.

At any rate, this week I’ve spent a lot of thinking about where our society has been with food and home innovations, and wondering where we’re going. I can’t imagine why I’d really want a smart refrigerator, but in 20 years will it be the norm? What new cooking gadgets will revolutionize our world? What food won’t we be able to live without?

Let me know your thoughts. In the meantime, I’ve got to eat lunch, which today means I’m going back to the 1980s. I hope I see an electric can opener!

 

 

The Ma Jaracz Cookie Train Comes to Town

9 Dec

I’ve got the song “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” in my head and not because it looks like Christmas outside. It doesn’t. Where it’s beginning to look like Christmas is my belly, thanks in part to Ma Jaracz.

Every year my mother sends out a big package of Christmas cookies. She gets her Martha Stewart on the day after Thanksgiving and makes probably 15 different kinds of cookies. Me? I make a mean chocolate chip, and every once in a while I forget what a pain it can be to make cut-out cookies, so I’ll try a batch of those. I like baking, but I’ve never gotten into the same Christmas cookie-making habit.

This week the annual package came. It’s meant for sharing among who’s ever in the household (depending on who’s visiting for the holidays), but due to dietary preferences, no one else does. So it’s me. And the box. Of large samples of 15 different kinds of cookies, packed matryoshka-style, with each batch in their own individual zipper bag, and then those zipper bags are packed in larger zipper bags. I’m sure if Hefty made a super-jumbo zipper bag, she’d pack the jumbo bags in it too.

When the box came this week, the Boy said, “Oh, that’s nice,” and then properly ignored the enthusiasm with which I dug into the bags of butter-laden treats that would wreck havoc on his digestive system. Which means that the embodiment of my Christmas childhood is all mine. Two jumbo zipper bags of mine.

I’ve been carrying them around the house like a security blanket, digging into toffee bars, Special K cookies (this year without the weird red and green jellies! Yes!), a bunch of variations on sugar cookies with colored sugar and more, whenever I can. I’ll look at the Boy with a mouthful of cookies and think, “You poor sap. You don’t know what you’re missing! THIS IS CHRISTMAS!!” And if my brain accidentally talks to my mouth during this thought process, I spray crumbs all over the place. The Jaracz Christmas is known for its classiness.

And while you might think, Well, Jill, it’s kind of obvious that you might have some Christmas belly going on because you’re eating a ton of cookies every day, let me qualify that. If you’re familiar with Ma Jaracz’ cookies, you’d know that eating a ton of her cookies was par for the course.

See, my mother used to be the master of the miniature cookie. If you made a regular-sized cookie–and for argument’s sake, let’s call “regular size” a Chips Ahoy–the Ma Jaracz version would be about a quarter of the size. I’m not fooling. I think in her mind she made teeny cookies for a couple of reasons: She used to give away tons of plates of cookies every year, so small cookies stretched the batch a lot longer; and smaller cookies meant you could try more of them and not stuff yourself (well, you might still stuff yourself).

However, Ma Jaracz has gotten older, which means her vision’s going a little bit. Now she’s making the large print version of her cookies. The jelly in a jelly thumbprint cookie is actually the size of a thumbprint and no longer the size of a pencil eraser. A toffee bar is four bites instead of one. A melting moment melts in your hand because you have to take so many bites that your body heat starts disintegrating it before you can pop it all into your mouth.

After a few days of eating cookies, my stomach is protesting, but I’m having a problem being reasonable and putting some in the freezer for later. I want my security blanket of Christmastime, and I want it now. I’ll deal with the weight gain sooner (preferred) or later, of course, and once they’re gone I’ll definitely cut back on the–Wait. Is that a snickerdoodle? Score!

Bakery Lamington Roulette

8 May

An aside from the travelogue to fill you in on the challenge that Kill C. and I are embarking on: Find the best lamington.

The lamington is a square of spongecake dipped in chocolate and coated in coconut. The better ones are filled with jam or cream. I know this, yet on our first trip to a grocery store, I purchased a six-pack of grocery lamingtons, much to the horror of the NSOs at our first clinic. They kindly informed us that grocery lamingtons are far inferior to bakery lamingtons and that jam and/or cream-filled laminations are far superior to the plain lamington.

We’ve yet to find a filled lamington, though it’s not for lack of trying. Almost every stop we make, if fresh lamingtons are available, one or both of us are trying. It’s quickly become a game of roulette–take a bite and see if you’ve hit the jackpot.

Oh, sure, at a bakery I could ask. And we could purchase a tray of grocery-bought jam-filled lamingtons (and maybe Kill C. did), but what’s the fun in that? Besides, a bit of really good sponge cake is hard to turn down, especially when laced with chocolate and coconut. I suppose I could claim that I want to learn how to make them at home, so I’m, um, doing research. This is partially true–I wouldn’t mind learning how to make them, but after the amount I’m eating, whether or I not should is the better question.

We’re a few days in and still haven’t won. We’ll keep trying though. Someday we have to win, no?

Duped Every Time

6 Mar

I love a good piece of pretzel bread. With good butter. There’s not much that’s tastier than this combo.

But this?

wpid-img_20150306_113832917.jpg

I know this is not going to be what I consider a soft pretzel to be. This is a completely soft roll made in pretzel style and dipped in food grade lye to get that dark brown pretzel color. I can tell just by picking it up that it’s lacking that slight crust around the outside that seals in all the goodness and gives it a little bit of a snap.

I bought it anyway. Brought it home. Ate the entire thing.

I was right.

At least I had good butter.

The Absolute Best Part of Baking Bread

4 Mar

A tiny detail can make a task enjoyable–and I look for those tiny details in a lot of aspects of life. I prefer folding towels as opposed to folding socks. When I play music, I can always find  one chord or phrase or musical resolution that I love experiencing. In roller derby officiating there are a million magical moments, depending on the position at hand.

And then there’s baking bread. I don’t bake bread often enough because I’m still working on time management–bread can be a long process, and if you don’t plan well, it just doesn’t work. However, I’d like to improve on that so that I can more often experience this moment–the best part of the bake:

VID_20150226_173208595

Pancakes + Paczkis = A Fat Tuesday Indeed

18 Feb

The success of a party can usually be figured out by the mess you have to deal with the next day. Yes, we filled up the garbage can. Yes, we’ve already put a load of dishes in the dishwasher. However, these remnants are what I’m cleaning up today:

The bottle of fish oil and the Japanese picture dictionary did play a role in the festivities last night, believe it or not. Our group has apparently hit the age where “vitamin chat” is an important topic of conversation. One guest started talking about how she used to take fish oil and saw great results, though she’d stopped taking it. That, of course, meant a beeline to the cabinet to pull out the fish oil and try to foist it on people. We needed the book to show some important point–or perhaps it just got to the point in the night where it’s time to pull out books for show and tell purposes. You know what it’s like, right?

You foodies, though, may really only care how the food turned out. Well, the mess in the kitchen is mainly due to me starting prep late and throwing things together quickly. I did not use a sieve when making British pancakes, nor did I let the flour “get a good airing.” I threw ingredients in a bowl, mixed them together, then realized that the recipe really needed to be doubled, so I threw another batch into the same bowl, “well in the centre” and “adding milk gradually” be damned. An actual European who knows a little something about making crepes was on pan duty, so they turned out all right. I’m sure that if I’d followed the recipe to the T, the pancakes’ texture might have been slightly different, but nobody complained–perhaps because it’s been a year since we’ve all had them. It’s all about the fillings anyway, and we had some lovely beef with raisins, a creamy mushroom, fruit, Nutella, lemon juice, powdered sugar, and multiple varieties of jam. Nothing to complain about!

Next on the docket was buttermilk pancakes, which was on the menu for the pickier eaters in our group. The Boy has a really good dairy-free pancake recipe that calls for orange juice, but I went with straight buttermilk, because I thought the slight orange flavor those cakes acquire might have not played well on a picky eater’s palate. Did I make the right call there? At any rate, the batter was fine, but since I’m not that practiced with cooking pancakes, they got a little scorched. To make up for it, we also cooked a couple of packages of bacon, which cures all cooking issues.

Our last pancake was okonomiyaki, cooked up by our Japanese friend. I haven’t had this dish in a while, and it was so good! Light, fluffy eggs, onions and cabbage, sauce, perhaps some mystery ingredients (don’t ask, just eat). Delicious!

wpid-img_20150217_201327385.jpg

The hard thing about three types of pancakes is that you need to have room for dessert, and as it was FYOP (Fill Your Own Paczki) night, that stomach space was essential.

Dude, can I just say that Jenny Jones has a good recipe? Sure, I fried them (she bakes), and I didn’t do the final steps to coat them in sugar because I’m used to a dusting of powdered sugar. They’re on the small side because I don’t have a proper cutter and was cutting them out with a 1/2-cup measure, but the German in our group loved the fact that they were the proper size for the German version of a Fat Tuesday donut. By next year I may have to acquire some sort of pastry syringe [as used in the latest episode of “The Great British Baking Show,” which coincidentally also feature donuts this week!] so we can do some proper injection. Me? I just cut the whole thing in half, to get in as much filling as possible.

So there you have it. I pulled off Pancake Day without being British…and without a Brit there for guidance, as ours was sick. A bunch of cooks in the kitchen made it happen, and a bunch of happy guests made for a nice jolt to the week–and I’m sure a jolt to my waistline. On to the austerity of Lent!

Get Your Flip On!

17 Feb

Happy Pancake Day! Yes, today is Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday too, but in England it’s Shrove Tuesday, and you eat pancakes. My Brit friend Angwa is pretty keen on the day, so there’s always a celebration with British crepe-like pancakes and tons of fillings (I think the idea is to clean out your pantry in preparation for Lent). This year we’ll also do American flapjacks, for those who aren’t fans of crepes, and our Japanese friend will make up some okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake/pizza type dish.

And for me it’s also Paczki Day.

This year, instead of going on a big paczki hunt, I’m going to attempt to make my own for the first time, thanks to a Jenny Jones recipe. I know! Jenny Jones! She’s still around and putting things out into the world (read her bio–she’s done some pretty cool stuff in her lifetime). And she has a paczki recipe. How can I not try it?!

Tonight we eat–whether you’re eating pancakes or paczkis or celebrating with a drink or two, eat well. Tomorrow we share pictures.

Ingredients Beget Ingredients

10 Feb

I’ve been steadily refilling my friends’ food subscription jars this winter, a project which I’m having a lot of fun with–and noticing a big issue.

One reason I started the project was to go through what I have and see if I need to hang onto it. I have a bunch of cookbooks I don’t use often. I have a big binder full of recipes I keep meaning to try. I have cupboards full of ingredients I should probably use.

I could do all of these on my own, without needing to fill a bunch of jars at random intervals, but I’m finding the subscription helps. The Boy and I don’t need to have a dozen cupcakes on hand. Nor do we necessarily need a quart of BBQ sauce that will spoil more quickly than the stuff you buy in the store. But if I share those with others–which I can’t really do effectively in a home office situation–I still get to see if the recipe’s a keeper, and I (hopefully) don’t consume as much. Having friends constantly request refills means that I’m forced to make sure I keep at my project to make sure I go through my cookbooks and binders, some of which have been full of Post-It flags for a good five years.

One thing I’d hoped to be able to do with the project is use up ingredients that are lingering on my shelves. However, sometimes it turns out that I have to get more random ingredients in order to use the first ones. Case in point: peach schnapps. We acquired a bottle in order to provide fuzzy navels for a 1980’s party, and now we have a lot of peach schnapps sitting around the house. Where to use it? How about a lovely recipe for fuzzy navel cupcakes, courtesy of one of my favorite cookbooks, Booze Cakes? Perfect, right?

Well, to a point. The recipe calls for orange marmalade and peach preserves, neither of which I had on hand–nor can I remember the last time I’ve ever purchased them–if I’ve ever purchased them in my lifetime. The Boy won’t eat them. I’m not big on eating a ton of jellied products, so now what? Yep, gotta find recipes that use orange marmalade and/or peach preserves. Bonus if they also use peach schnapps, because, yep, we’ve still got a fair amount of that. I’d start drinking a ton of fuzzy navels, but I’m busy consuming cosmopolitans because we have a 64 oz. bottle of cranberry juice that we also bought for said 80’s party. And we have a ton of vodka on hand. Did you know that a good cosmo only uses 1 oz. of cranberry juice at a time? I’ll be drinking cosmos until that stuff goes bad, and I bet I’ll still have to dump half the bottle. I am, however, whipping right through the vodka and orange liqueur, for what that’s worth.

I suppose I should start tracking all of the random ingredients I buy for said recipes. At the end of the year, I can see what I end up throwing away or find lurking in the back of the cupboard and/or refrigerator. Or, maybe I’ll be successful and use up everything–which might be another fun challenge in and of itself.

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